Houston Heflin researches HeadsUp as a technology tool in collaborative learning environments

The Adams Center would like to recognize faculty who have exhibited extraordinary teaching, scholarship and service. We want to congratulate faculty members for their hard work, achievements and advancements in their field. This month we are spotlighting Houston Heflin, who was nominated for his research on the impact of mobile technology on student learning.

Heflin_Houston108x153What are you doing? 

Over the past two years I have collaborated with the Adams Center and Cornerstone faculty to investigate the efficacy of HeadsUp as a technology tool in collaborative learning environments (small groups). HeadsUp was created at ACU to facilitate assigning students to small groups and then disseminating prompts as well as roles for students to fill as they engage in conversations created by an instructor. Beyond positive faculty reports of its effectiveness, we were interested in learning what influence HeadsUp has on student engagement and critical thinking.

(This collaborative research project would not have been possible without significant contributions from Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker, Jessica Nguyen, Lyndell Lee, an undergraduate researcher, and two graduate assistants.)

Our research involved 159 students participating in 39 different small groups that were constructed in one of three ways: “common practice,” “best practice,” and “HeadsUp.” The common practice groups were characterized by the instructor verbally stating the prompt and the students self-selecting the small groups. The best practice groups were distinguished by the instructor handing out a written prompt and the students being assigned to random groups. Finally, HeadsUp groups were also assigned random small groups and had the written prompt for the small group on their mobile device. Each group was required to answer the prompt with a written response at the end of their group time.

Comparing the qualitative data from the written responses, the quantitative data from exit surveys of students, and most interestingly, the video footage of these students involved in their small groups, we are hoping to draw conclusions about the most effective ways for teachers to construct small groups and implement technology in classes.

Why are you doing it? 

It is now commonly accepted that lecture cannot be the only teaching strategy used in college classrooms where faculty seek student engagement. Collaborative learning environments (or small groups) are one way to help students engage one another and the content of our courses. But what exactly is happening in these small groups?

Many faculty have observed social loafing and passive group participants who use small group time as an opportunity to disengage. Is there any critical thinking happening in the best small groups? How might faculty construct small groups so that students are truly learning? And how can technology be employed in classes so that it facilitates rather than distracts from learning?

These are questions we hope to answer. As we reach conclusions to these questions, we believe they have the potential to improve the quality of our teaching and the quality of our students’ learning.

Why do you think it is important to incorporate this practices into the classroom? 

Each year we see a report published from the National Study of Student Engagement because educators have learned that engaged students are more likely to be learning. Or as Terry Doyle has said in a book on learner-centered teaching, “The one who does the work does the learning.” Small groups are one way to engage students in active conversation that helps them discover and learn, but all small groups are not created equal…

Some small groups demand more of students, requiring them to follow specific, layered instructions. Some small groups require students to take a position on an issue they might not agree with. Some small groups require students to fulfill a role for the group to function. And some small groups require written or verbal products at the end of the group time. Theses are just a handful of the many ways small groups are constructed differently, and they may all impact learning differently. We want to know what these differences mean for learners.

Who is being impacted the most? 

The people most impacted by collaborative learning environments and technology are the faculty and students who use these tools in the classroom. Faculty at ACU have access to many resources and technology tools, but it often takes work to learn the tools that are most effective for the courses we teach. In addition, we are not always sure about the positive impact it has on education — if the payoff is worth the effort to learn the tool.

What hopes do you have for the future when this work is done? 

When our work is completed, we hope to be able to speak confidently about the ways faculty can construct small groups in order to promote learning. We also hope to describe ways technology can supplement our teaching and not distract students during small group discussions. Ultimately, I hope the faculty at ACU will continue innovating in the classroom, whether through the use of technology or other teaching strategies such as small groups, to promote more student engagement and, ultimately, student learning.

For further information on Houston’s research, please see his Adams Center presentation, The Impact of Mobile Technology on Student Attitudes, Engagement, and Learning.

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